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On The Highest Branch

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Nothing ever happens in Junifer ‘June’ Guinn’s life. And the outspoken yet deeply insecure girl is absolutely okay with it. But her monotonous days helping out at her grandparents' cafe take an unexpected turn when their school’s golden boy swaggers back into her life. Parker Metzer, whom she has long secretly admired, also happens to be the ex of her best friend, Kedz. But Kedz and Parker are no longer dating and somehow June feels Parker is beginning to be a little too friendly. As she shakes off the idea of Parker, her fate continues to shift when she stumbles into a rather complicated situation with Hiro Cameron, a short-tempered and rebellious rich kid who has been forced to work at the cafe. And unlike the characters who constantly embark on adventures in the Manga novels she enjoys reading, June is happy with her humdrum existence, while Hiro longs for adventure and a life beyond the confines of family traditions. And that’s just the beginning of how opposite these two are. They couldn’t possibly survive working together in a tight space cafe, could they? But, as June gradually develops a deeper bond with Parker, she also finds herself being the only person Hiro opens up to. Already faced with the pressures of performing better in her last year of high school at Clearwater High, and landing the right college, June now needs to make consequential decisions of the heart.

Romance / Humor
Leigh Frankie
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

Just 10 more minutes.

She needed to survive just 10 more minutes, and then she could go home, curl up in her bed, and finally find out what happened between Kaneki and Arima, characters in her current manga obsession.

Junifer “June” Guinn usually enjoyed working at her grandparents’ quaint café, Café Dahlia, but the Sunday rush-hour racket was testing her patience right now. Even the cheery décor and soothing music failed to give her spirits the boost they usually ensured.

It didn’t help that tomorrow would be the first day of Senior Year, which meant she was losing precious moments of her last day of Summer. Moments that she’d rather spend immersed in Volume 14 of Tokyo Ghoul.

But, right now, she had only 10, no 9, more minutes remaining in her shift. So, she continued wiping down Table 5 which had been abandoned by a group of teenage boys. They seemed to think that the extra 20-dollar tip entitled them to murder a 14 oz Heinz tomato ketchup, and leave the crime scene on their table.

With 6 minutes left, she bee-lined to the counter to deposit her tray of dirty dishes, but had to dodge a toddler who, at the most inopportune time, decided to pop out of hiding under Table 6. A veteran waitress, she was able to hold on to the tray she was balancing in her arm even as she made a sweeping turn around the cafe, looking for the toddler’s probably already anxious parent. She finally sighted a man craning his neck in search. June caught the poor man’s eye and mouthed, “He’s here.”

The man let out a sigh of relief, audible even from half a room away, and walked over to collect his errant kid.

With two minutes left in her shift, she was finally able to dump the contents of her tray into the already full sink. She swept aside the curtain separating the main café area from the kitchen, and stepped into the heady aroma of freshly baked pastry.

Her best friend and fellow server, Marcel Barer, was already putting on his apron. He was muttering something under his breath, probably a line from another play he was auditioning for. He looked up when June walked in, and his ready smile faltered when he saw her.

“Did the Taliban cross oceans and accost you?” was his greeting, accompanied by a sweeping theatrical hand. From June’s now skewed ponytail, which, if we were being honest, did not really start out perfect when she left the house this morning, his hand travelled to her faded black shirt and leggings, all the way down to her sneakers with the shoelace undone.

June started biting her fingernails while Marcel perused her state of disarray. She retorted, “At least, I don’t look like a gigolo.”

The blue Dahlia apron with the flower logo prominently displayed in front really should have looked ridiculous on top of Marcel’s impeccably ironed purple shirt and white pants. But, he wore it with such aplomb that the uniform had no choice but to flatteringly frame his well-built physique. White loafers that no speck of dirt dared touch completed the ensemble. How Marcel could keep those pants and shoes white all the way until the end of his shift, June could never imagine, but that was one of his superpowers.

And, he had a lot in his arsenal.

“Admit it, I look like I stepped straight out of a fashion magazine,” Marcel responded. . June continued chewing her fingernails, terrified she’d agree if she stopped doing so.

“Anyway,” Marcel continued. “My life is about to change this Saturday. I’ve been asked to—”

“Your life has already changed so many times that you could be the poster boy for Evolution. Your shift began 5 minutes ago, Neil Patrick Harris. Get out there!”

“No, listen, this Saturday, there’s a —”

What exactly was happening this Saturday June did not find out. A sharp peal from the counter’s bell interrupted the announcement, indicating a customer was waiting to be served.

Annoyed, Marcel rolled his eyes, rudely brushed June aside, and, channeling a lead actor about to take center stage, opened the curtain with as much pageantry as he could muster. To June’s surprise, his head popped back into the kitchen a split second later, and, with a wicked grin, he taunted, “Had you been willing to cover 5 more minutes, you wouldn’t have been so grumpy!” He took another sweeping glance at her, and furiously whispered, “Fire or earthquake, do not go out there looking like that. Comb your hair!”

With those instructions, his head disappeared and June heard him give a jubilant greeting, “Welcome to Café Dahlia. How may I help you?”

Intrigued, June peeked through the curtains, only to gasp. She immediately stepped back but knew all too well that it was too late.

He had seen her.

His hazel eyes had already caught hers. And, as always, her tummy took a tumble.

Parker Metzer, Clearwater High’s Golden Boy. A boy she had set her sights on ever since his detailed analysis of The Midsummer Night’s Dream in their 7th Grade Literature class. The class, mind you, had been made up of kids who couldn’t be bothered to pick up a book and couldn’t care less about the complicated play within a play storyline. But, thanks to Parker’s passionate retelling and unironic declaration that it was his favorite Shakespeare piece, June had laughed at Puck, cheered for Hermia, and fallen in love with Lysander.

So, while everyone assumed tomboyish Junifer Guinn never wasted any minute thinking about boys, she harbored a secret guilty pleasure — Parker-watching. Only Marcel, with sheer cunning, had been able to draw the secret out of her one day, a day she had rued since. She couldn’t even tell her other best friend, because, as luck would have it, Kennedy “Kedz” Reynolds, her BFF since they were still simultaneously soiling their diapers, used to date Parker.

The two had begun dating just a few weeks after that moving Midsummer Night’s Dream presentation, and had been inseparable for a few months only to crash and burn so suddenly for no discernible reason, just before the summer of that year.

With Parker and Kedz no longer together, June saw no reason to hang out with him, so she made do with watching him from a distance.

She took off her apron, and threw it into her backpack. There really was no point drooling over Parker’s eyes and wondering what he might have thought about her cowering. There was also no point combing her hair, as she was going to use the staff’s back entrance anyway, into the backyard where her bike was stowed. Thus, there was a very low chance of actually running into Desirable Number One. Also, she really did not have a comb with her. She saved precious backpack acreage for her precious manga collection.

Speaking of which, before zipping up her backpack, she carefully checked that her Tokyo Ghoul copy was still safely tucked in place. Combs, she did not really have any need for. In fact, her only concession to “fashion” and “good appearance” were the blonde highlights Kedz forced her to get a few months back and a good clean brush every morning. If she remembered.

June unlocked her bike from the post her grandfather had erected for just this reason. She noticed her back tire seemed to be slacker than the front, but, considering her house was only 15 minutes away, it was surely not a cause for concern.

She slowly pedaled to the front of the café, where her grandfather was rolling up the blue and white striped awning that graced over the café’s front door and windows. It was still bright at 5pm, but the clear late summer sky promised a starry night, and her grandfather surely wanted to provide their customers an unimpeded view.

“I’m on my way home now, Gramps! I’ll see you there for dinner.”

Grandpa Dwight merely nodded to acknowledge the farewell, too busy with his task. But, just as June was about to pedal away, he asked, “You start school tomorrow, right?” June nodded. He continued, “Then, make sure to do some advance reading when you get home, and when I say advance reading, I’m not talking about those damn picture books.”

“Manga, Gramps! Not picture books.” June rolled her eyes and raised a finger for her teeth to chew on.

“I don’t care what they are called, Young Lady.” At 65 years old, Grandfather Dwight still possessed a stare that could wither even a cactus. “You start university next year. Your grades last year were barely enough to get you considered. This is your last chance to show more focus and responsibility. I warn you, June. One more C and I’ll take away your entire manga collection.”

June dropped her gaze. This was a recurring conversation, and she was not about to engage in a full-blown argument in front of the café, just seconds from freedom. She decided to blow her grandfather a kiss, which was guaranteed to put him in a lighter mood. But, when she looked up, her grandfather had already gone back into the café, and, instead, standing on the doorstep, most likely having heard every word, was none other than, yes, you guessed it — Parker Metzer.

To his credit, Parker did not acknowledge the conversation he had unwittingly eavesdropped into, and even her embarrassingly puckered lips. Instead, with the charm and politeness that had endeared him to three-quarters of Clearwater High’s female population, he smiled and waved, “Hi, Stranger.” He was clutching a Café Dahlia paper bag in his right hand, and, with his left, was trying to catch his sister, who was already several paces ahead.

If June remembered correctly, Rayne was 5 years younger than them, so about 12, and was actually Parker’s half-sibling.

Parker shrugged to indicate he could not stop and talk, and, with two quick strides, easily caught up to his sister.

June could not do more than sigh. As she cycled home, the breeze blew away her jumbled thoughts of Parker, college, Parker, and being a constant disappointment to her grandparents from her mind. She was able to focus on whether and how Kaneki would somehow be able to triumph in this last and what was turning out to be the best volume of Tokyo Ghoul.

After a while, June finally realized that she was actually hearing a hissing sound and not merely imagining the swish of Kaneki’s rinkaku. She stepped off her bike, and saw that her back tire had given up and deflated.

With another sigh and another nibble on her nail, she pushed her bike forward and surrendered to the inevitable walk home.

She was half a block away from their street when she heard the noises.

Huddled tightly in a corner of a dark alley was a group of teenage boys, around her age. She recognized them as the entitled rich kids who had practically wrecked Table Number 5 at the café. At first, June thought they were exchanging contraband, but a slight gap in their cluster revealed what they were really doing.

They were, or at least one of them was, pummeling into another boy, crouched low on the ground and trying to shield his face from the worst attacks with bleeding hands.

June stood rooted to the spot, riveted to the scene unfolding in front of her.

Gore and slaughter were a dime a dozen in those manga stories she loved so well. And, although she had never been exposed to actual violence, it’s not like their town, Chepstow, was the epitome of peace and security, anyway.

So, why, then, couldn’t my brain process this horror?

Punch after punch, kick after kick, she watched, unable to will her body to do anything else.

Until, finally, a particularly heavy blow landed squarely into the poor boy’s jaw, causing his head to smack into the unforgiving pavement. June found her voice, “Leave him alone!”

She charged. Forgetting that she was a lone girl facing a group of four boys. Forgetting she was only 5′3″, and those boys would most assuredly tower over her by at least a foot. All she knew was that if she didn’t act, the next hit would send the boy to the hospital, or worse.

Her scream and the crash of her bike, that she had let go of, drew the thugs’ attention, and they all glanced her way. The diversion provided the victim valuable seconds to scramble to his feet and scamper away. In the center of the circle, the tallest of the boys groaned in annoyance. He looked confusedly at his hands, which, just a split second ago was gripping the victim’s collar, but was now suddenly clutching thin air.

He looked back up, and June stared into the angriest black eyes she had ever seen.

She ran for her life.

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